A reckoning is coming. Not only for the Republican Party, which will have to decide whether it will continue on the path of Trumpism, but also for the Democratic Party as the Biden White House tries to navigate deep divides between its moderate and progressive wings. How these differences are reconciled over this presidential term will set the tone in American politics for decades to come.
It is a cliched truism that the Democratic Party hates their base, while the Republican Party fears theirs. This is fundamentally the issue that each party must confront.
For Democrats, this sentiment is best represented by Barack Obama’s description in his memoirs of the White House’s feelings toward progressives who were angered by the decision to jettison the public option during the Affordable Care Act debate. In his forthcoming memoir the former President writes that in the White House “public option” was “shorthand” for when progressive groups were angered by the Administration’s failure to achieve “less than a hundred per cent of whatever they were asking for.”
This type of derision is commonly directed at the party’s base—that they are immature, cannot accept compromise or the realities of the legislative process. What the specific example of the public option ignores is that it was already a compromise for many Democratic activists who favored a single-payer system. It also ignores the fact that the unrelenting advocacy of base constituencies, going so far as chaining themselves to the White House fence, did push the Obama Administration to achieve some enormous gains, including shifting left on LGBT rights and immigration issues.
For Republicans, this is best demonstrated by those who quietly complained about Donald Trump, while refusing, primarily on the basis of fear, but also due to general satisfaction with the ideological direction of his White House, among both lawmakers and the party’s base, to take any action to thwart his excesses. This was not a new behavior for the party as Republican leaders also refused to condemn the xenophobia and bigotry of the Tea Party movement, happily weaponizing this anger to regain control of Congress.
These instincts have dictated much of the parties’ actions over the past several decades, from the GOP’s embrace and encouragement of the birther movement to Rahm Emanuel yelling at progressives groups gathered for a weekly meeting at the Hilton Hotel just north of the White House, that they were “fucking retarded” for considering running ads opposing Democrats who were lining up to vote against the Affordable Care Act.
The political impact on the Republicans has been mixed. While winning elections, they have shrunk their appeal, rarely achieving even a plurality of the national popular vote. The path they are on can be pegged to the rise of Rush Limbaugh, whose radio show began its national syndication in the summer of 1988 and who not only spawned hundreds of copycats across the AM radio waves, but also the entire cottage industry of right-wing media.
After the wild success of his radio show, Limbaugh attempted a nationally syndicated television program—produced, incidentally, by Roger Ailes. It was Ailes’s second foray into television propaganda. Back in the 1970s, Ailes had worked with beer mogul Adolph Coors to create a conservative video news distribution service whose slogan was “Fair and Balanced.” Of course, his success on CNBC was followed by a partnership with Rupert Murdoch to create Fox News, which liberals have long eyed with both fear and envy, for its ability to effectively communicate the conservative message and whip the right into a frenzy.
But the GOP’s ability to attract even a plurality of the electorate since the dawn of the Limbaugh era has been an abysmal failure. In the eight presidential elections since his rise to prominence, Republicans have won the popular vote only a single time. In that case, George W. Bush was a wartime President who had guided the country through one of its most traumatic episodes and, early in his term, had an approval rating topping 90 percent.
In the presidential elections before the rise of Limbaugh, Republican electoral landslides were commonplace, occurring in 1972, 1980, and 1984. While George H.W. Bush won in a landslide in 1988, Limbaugh’s show went into syndication that summer and he had not yet built up his enormous audience. In 1976, Jimmy Carter squeaked to victory in the aftermath of Watergate.
Prior to the rise of Donald Trump, the leadership of the Republican Party, with Newt Gingrich the exception, was always more moderate than its base, from Bob Dole to George H.W. Bush’s “kinder gentler America” to his son’s push for immigration reform and his work with Ted Kennedy on No Child Left Behind. Its losing nominees were patricians like Mitt Romney or John McCain, who were happy to buck the conservative wing of their party at certain points in their careers.
Trump was the first candidate to truly represent the party’s id. This was a very intentional strategy. Sam Nunberg, an associate of Roger Stone, who worked for Trump as he was considering a run for President, talked about listening to “thousands of hours of talk radio” and distilling the contents for the future candidate. With that as Trump’s guide, it is no surprise that he began his campaign by saying Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
It was obvious that most Republican leaders were happy to encourage anger and conspiracies directed at Democrats, while attempting to stiff arm the racism and anti-immigrant bile that often accompanied it. Trump, on the other hand, embraced this wing of the party openly, encouraging their excesses and completely leaning into their hateful rhetoric. In 2015, while mainstream GOP candidates distanced themselves from Trump’s racism, it was in fact winning him votes in the primary.
Now, with Donald Trump on his way out of the White House, many Republicans will quickly try to distance themselves from him, pretending his bigotry was an aberration. The problem is that Trump, both personally as well as the ideology of Trumpism, will remain their party’s driving force. Trump still commands 70 million Twitter followers, an email list that is likely tens of millions strong, and a loyal grassroots following. Even in defeat. Republican electoral prospects, and certainly low-dollar fundraising, will be directly tied to Trump in 2022. He will likely also serve as a kingmaker in the 2024 Republican primary, if he does not decide to run himself. The stain of Trump is one that will not be easily buffed out.
Democrats under Joe Biden will be forced to confront a different, yet no less important, set of issues with their base. Overwhelmingly, liberals and leftists were united in believing that Trump was an existential threat to the republic and, therefore, it was worth putting aside ideological differences until after the election. But Biden’s Administration, at best, will pursue an agenda well to the right of the base of the party, particularly with a Republican Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell.
While the makeup of the Senate will spare Joe Biden fights with his base over procedural issues such as filibuster reform and court packing, not to mention his health-care plan, it will not save him from other debates.
His advisers have spoken about reining in deficits, something that is verboten on the left. On climate, his repeated insistence that he “will not ban fracking” creates fears that his EPA will not act as aggressively as it is empowered to in order to combat climate change.
There will be pressure from moderates in the House to limit the scope of Congress’s agenda as they seek reelection facing the headwinds of a midterm with their party controlling the White House. Progressives, on the other hand, will make the argument that the path to Democratic victory in 2022 and 2024 is an aggressive agenda based around the needs of working people.
This argument started just two days after the election, with moderate Virginia Representative Abigail Spanberger, at a House Democratic caucus meeting, accusing progressives and their message around police reform and socialism of costing moderate members their seats.
In response, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The New York Times’s Astead Herndon, “I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy. And that their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare for All is not the enemy.” She continued, “This isn’t even just about winning an argument. It’s that if they keep going after the wrong thing, I mean, they’re just setting up their own obsolescence.”
Herndon afterwards spoke with moderate Pennsylvania Representative Conor Lamb who responded, “[Ocasio-Cortez] can put her name behind stuff and that’s I guess courageous, but when it’s a damaging idea or bad policy, like her tweeting out that fracking is bad in the middle of a presidential debate when we’re trying to win western Pennsylvania—that’s not being anything like a team player.” He concluded, “And it’s honestly giving a false and ineffective promise to people that makes it very difficult to win the areas where President Trump is most popular in campaigns.”
This dynamic is at the core of the dispute between the two wings of the party. Ocasio-Cortez, in her interview, insisted she wants to help moderates win elections, offering assistance with online communications. While Lamb responded, with limited evidence, that AOC and others speaking out on progressive issues was putting moderates like him in danger. Yet these are the issues that are energizing the base of the party and motivating them to donate, volunteer, and come out to vote.
On the right, their base demands a xenophobic agenda and fealty to an authoritarian President, or at least, with Trump defeated, a set of political principles that are more authoritarian than democratic. On the left, the Democratic Party’s base demands policy outcomes that will not only help this country in the midst of the pandemic, but for the most part are broadly popular. Among the most popular policies are raising the minimum wage, an end to foreign military adventurism, strengthening Social Security, and spending on green infrastructure. For Biden the path should be clear.
The Republicans’ base has trapped them. For the Democrats, the party’s base can move them and our country in a positive direction. The question is, will the party listen?